Tag Archives: Black History Month 2015

Bridget “Biddy” Mason: Slave, Entrepreneur, Philanthropist

Noting the recent spate of blog posts celebrating the lives of African American women, a dear friend in Los Angeles sent me a note asking if I knew anything of the life of Bridget “Biddy” Mason. Best known to Angelinos who enjoy the urban park that celebrates her legacy Biddy Mason was an unschooled slave woman who became a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist – a legend in her adopted Los Angeles.

The brief story that my friend shared inspired a quest to learn about this truly unique woman. A quick search unearthed resources in abundance.

Bridget (she had no surname) was born a slave in 1818, probably in Georgia. She was given as a wedding gift to Robert Smith and his bride Rebecca Crosby who owned a plantation in Logtown, Mississippi.

During this era missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) were proselytizing in the area. In the mid 1840’s Smith converted to Mormonism and decided to join the Mormon community being established by Brigham Young in the Utah Territory. This meant that, in spite of advice to free his slaves prior to the mission, Smith relocated his entire household, including slaves. In the case of Biddy and the other slaves, it meant a 1700 mile walk from Mississippi to Utah, a grueling trek during which Biddy prepared meals, herded the cattle, and served as midwife, a skill she had learned from other slaves. She also cared for her own three daughters who may well have been fathered by Smith.

In 1851 Smith moved his household again, this time in a 150-wagon caravan to San Bernardino, California, where a new Mormon community was under development.  History generously suggests that Smith was unaware that California was a free state in which slavery was forbidden. In any event, Smith kept his retinue intact with no apparent challenge.

Freed slaves knew their rights, however. Along the way Biddy met Charles H. and Elizabeth Flake Rowan, free blacks, who urged her to legally contest her slave status once the caravan reached the free state of California. Biddy received additional encouragement from free black friends, Robert and Minnie Owens whose son Charles Owens was romantically involved with Biddy’s daughter Ellen.

Meanwhile, slaveholder Smith concluded that he and his household of slaves were not safe in free California. In January 1856 Smith made a plan to relocate to Texas, a slave state. Robert Owens, a respected Los Angeles business owner, informed the LA County Sheriff that slaves were being illegally held and transported. The Sheriff quickly gathered a posse that apprehended Smith’s Texas-bound wagon train in Cajon Pass, California. Smith was prevented from leaving the state.

With the help of these new friends, Biddy petitioned the court for freedom for herself and her extended family of thirteen women and children. LA District Judge Benjamin Ignatius Hayes took three days before handing down his ruling in favor of of the illegally held slaves, citing California’s 1850 Constitution that prohibited slavery. At the last minute, Judge Hayes granted freedom to Biddy, her three daughters and ten other women and children who had been enslaved by Smith.

It was on the occasion of her emancipation that Bridget assumed the surname Mason, the middle name of Amasa Lyman, Mormon Apostle and Mayor of San Bernardino; Biddy had known and worked with members of Lyman’s household. Biddy Mason and three daughters moved to LA where they accepted the invitation to live with the Owens family. In time Biddy’s daughter Ellen married Charles Owens while Biddy established herself as a highly regarded nurse and midwife and served as a domestic to Dr. John S. Griffin, a prominent LA physician.

A frugal money manager, Biddy saved enough to purchase property at 331 South Spring Street where she built a clapboard house in which she lived until her death in 1891.   She was one of the first black women to own land in LA. In 1884 she sold a portion of the land; she had purchased for $250 in 1866 and sold it in 1884 for $1500. Entrepreneur that she was, Mason built a commercial building on the remaining land and began renting office space. This was her entry into the highly profitable real estate boom in an exploding LA economy. Over the years Mason acquired many parcels of LA property; as most of her investments became prime urban real estate Biddy, the ex-slave, acquired considerable wealth. It must have been in the genes because her grandson, Robert Curry Owens, a real estate developer and politician, eventually became the richest African-American in LA.

Still, the prosperous Mason was better known and is remembered not as an entrepreneur but as a philanthropist. From her residence on Spring Street she fed newcomers and the homeless, welcomed the poor of all races, supported churches, schools and provided aid to inmates she visited regularly. She was lovingly known as “Grandma” or “Auntie” Mason.

In 1872 Mason and her son-in-law Charles Owens founded and financed the Los Angeles branch of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first black church in LA. The church still stands at 2270 South Harvard Street.

Biddy Mason died January 15, 1891, and was buried in an unmarked grave at Evergreen Cemetery in LA. Nearly a century later, on March 27, 1988, her grave was marked at an unveiling ceremony attended by the Mayor, other city dignitaries, and about three thousand members of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

November 16, 1989, was declared Biddy Mason Day.

Today the life and generosity of Bridget Mason are commemorated in a memorial and art installation in the Broadway Spring Center, near the Spring Street residence where Biddy had lived since 1866. Biddy Mason Park, designed by landscape architects Burton & Spitz, features courtyards and walkways and a fountain made of water pipes. A mural in the art park includes inscriptions, images of deeds and maps, and a photograph of Bridget “Biddy” Mason.

Rosa Parks – An armchair guide to a major exhibition of her life and work

Though snippets of the story and role of Rosa Parks are known, the fact is that much of her personal story has heretofore been hidden to the public. The Rosa Parks Collection at the Library of Congress, formally opened just last week, sheds much more light on the personal life of this courageous civil rights leader. The Rosa Parks Collection is on loan for ten years from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to the Library of Congress.

The collection contains 7500 manuscripts and 2500 photographs. Throughout the month of March a sampling of approximately two dozen items will be on view in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Items from the collection will also be included in the ongoing exhibition, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom,” which will open at the Library in September.

Visitors to the exhibition — including virtual visitors — may well find a Rosa Parks they had not known. One poignant example is Parks’ description of her treatment at the downtown public library, where “a colored person will not be permitted to come in and read a book or be given one to take out. The requested book will be sent to the colored branch library, on the east side of town.”

The exhibition proves that Rosa Parks was more complex and more passionate than the stoic protester often portrayed in accounts of her life. Instead, it is clear from her letters that she was filled with rage that inspired her protests. She wrote that “I want to feel the nearness of something secure. It is such a lonely, lost feeling that I am cut off from life. I am nothing. I belong nowhere and to no one.”

Parks wrote that “little children are so conditioned early to learn their places in the segregated pattern as they make their first toddling steps and are weaned from the mother’s breast.” The conditioning last a lifetime. “There is just so much hurt, disappointment and oppression one can take. The bubble of life grows larger. The line between reason and madness grows thinner.”

The letters include Parks’ references to the murder of Emmett Till and to the terror of the Ku Klux Klan in her home town of Pine Level, Alabama where “KKK moved through the country, burning negro churches, schools, flogging and killing.”

On the one hand, Parks’ refusal to abandon her seat on the public bus meant financial hardship. On the other hand, it earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as the respect and admiration of countless individuals, including political and social leaders ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Martin Luther King who said of her: “No one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.’”

One need not travel to Washington, DC to experience the richness of the Rosa Parks exhibition:




Beatrice Morrow Cannady – Journalist, Activist, Civil Rights Leader

It is the duty of the Negro woman to see that in the home there are histories of her face written by Negro historians…The Negro mother has it within her power to invest less in overstuffed furniture…and more in books and music by and about the Negro race so that our youth may grow up with a pride of race which can never be had any other way. Beatrice Morrow Cannady, speaking at the annual NAACP conference, 1928.

This is but one of the many dimensions of the vision and leadership demonstrated by Beatrice Morrow Cannady, the most noted civil rights activist in Portland, Oregon.

Born in 1889 in Littig, Texas, Morrow worked briefly as a teacher, then studied music at the University of Chicago, until she traveled West to marry Edward Daniel Cannady, the founder and editor of the Portland’s Black newspaper, the Advocate. There Beatrice became assistant editor, moving up the ladder until she became editor and owner of the Advocate in 1930 when she and Edward divorced. On the pages of the Advocate Cannady wrote scathing editorials about discrimination that was routine in Portland, observing that “not even the pulpit has been as effective for the advancement of our Group, and for justice as the press..”

Along the way, in 1922 Cannady became the first African American woman to graduate from Northwestern College of Law in Portland. As an attorney Cannady helped shape Oregon’s first civil rights legislation, provisions that mandated full access to public accommodations, legislation that eventually died aborning. It may surprise 21st Century activists to know just how racist Portland was “back in the day.” For the city’s 1500 African American residents there were barriers everywhere, including public venues and restaurants. In 1925 Cannady worked on the successful campaign to repeal Oregon’s “black laws” which prohibited African Americans from settling in Oregon and denied voting rights to people of color.

Cannady faced constant personal and professional struggles. The 1906 Oregon ruling that African Americans could be legally segregated from whites in public places was not struck down until 1953. Understandably, early in her career Cannady became a founding member of the Portland NAACP. It was in this role that she rose to leadership in the fifteen-year campaign to limit distribution of the controversial anti-black film Birth of a Nation. Recognizing Cannady’s leadership NAACP Executive Secretary invited Cannady to address the NAACP national conference in Los Angeles where Cannady joined W.E.B.DuBois on the speaker’s rostrum.

Cannady soon introduced a softer, more social, approach to breaking down racial barriers. She hosted interracial tea parties at her Portland home, Sunday afternoon gatherings that included entertainment, cultural and history with local, national and international politics – all with the goal of “ironing out…misunderstandings between the races.” As many 200 neighbors would show up for the teas at which Cannady would remind her guests that “as citizens, colored people deserve all the rights and privileges and the protection as any other citizen has.”

In 1932 Cannady turned her sites to the need for reform of the law. She announced her candidacy for state representative, the first African American woman to run for elected office in Oregon. Though she did not make it through the primaries, she did garner some 8000 votes, many cast by white constituents.

During the last half of her life Cannady opted to move to the Los Angeles area to be closer to her family. She died there in 1974. Long overlooked by her Portland neighbors Cannady has now been “rediscovered” as one of the women whose accomplishments will be acknowledged in the Walk of Heroines established in public space adjacent to Portland State University. Further, Kimberley Mangun has published a biography of Beatrice Morrow Cannady, A Force for Change: Beatrice Morrow Cannady and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Oregon, 1912-1936. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2010. Oregon Public Broadcasting has also produced a piece on Beatrice Morrow Cannady as part of their Oregon Experience series (http://www.opb.org/pressroom/article/oregon-experience-beatrice-morrow-cannady/)



Celebrating a Century of Black Life, History, and Culture

We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.
-Carter Woodson, 1926

They also serve who only post and wait….

That’s how I feel when all I can do is encourage and support those who are in a position to do something real – especially about important matters such as celebration of African American History Month. As February nears and the time for planning bears down upon us I am left with no power to act other than to suggest some great resources for those who are in a position to celebrate Black History Month with the gusto it so richly deserves.

To be honest, when I read that both Nike and Adidas are featuring the Black History Month debut of theme-related shoes (replete with inspirational quotes paying homage to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career) I knew I had to do something

With the hope that these ideas may augment ongoing plans and possibly spur some new ones, here are some ideas of ready resources to share the history and stories of African Americans:

  • The 2015 theme for the month is “A Century of Black Life, History, and Culture.” The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) offers an excellent overview of the past century which has seen a transformation in our collective understanding of the role of African Americans in this nation’s history. The ASALH notes that “this transformation is the result of effort, not chance” adding that, though “the spotlight often shines on individuals, this movement is the product of organizations, of institutions and institution-builders who gave direction to effort.”
  • To augment the ASALH narrative the U.S. Census Bureau provides mountains of data reflecting the African American population now numbered at 74.5 million. Census Bureau stats cover everything from college enrollment to jobs to voting patterns, families and children. (U.S. Census Bureau CB15-FF.01)
  • The schedule for public television broadcasting during Black History Month is robust. (http://www.pbs.org/about/news/archive/2015/black-history-month/) The roster includes special new episodes from popular titles along with encore programming streamed online. Some interesting programming includes “Celebrating Black Americans,” a feature of the Antiques Roadshow, wherein participants present for appraisal an 1821 citizenship certificate for a free man of color and an African American beauty book written by entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker, the first American female millionaire.  Also on PBS, on the Genealogy Roadshow, professional genealogists unravel the story of a New Orleans family’s links to the Civil War and connections to the New Orleans Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. American Masters will premiere “August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand,” which examines the legacy of the playwright in honor of his 70th birthday and the tenth anniversary of his death. On Shakespeare Uncovered PBS will offer an analysis od the personal passion of its celebrated hosts including Morgan Freeman’s discussion of The Taking of the Shrew
  • The National Council of Teachers of English weighs in with the National African American Read-In. It’s not too late to get involved and to be recognized as an official African American Read-In Host. Schools, churches, libraries, bookstores, community and professional organizations and interested citizens are welcome to join the Read In. (ncte.org)
  • Closer to home, Governor Dayton has issued the official Black History Month declaration recognizing the opportunity “to honor the many heroes who are unknown and unnamed, and who have contributed to the struggle for freedom and justice for all” and encouraging all Minnesotans “to come together, reflect on our collective past, and reveal its impact on present conditions.” (http://mn.gov/governor/images/Black_History_Month_2015.pdf)
  • The Minnesota History Center offers a number of public programs related to the theme of Black History Month. On Thursday, February 7, there’s a book launch celebration for Blues Vision, a collection of prose and poetry by forty-three Black writers. The following day, February 8, the Karen Charles Threads Dance Project performs in a program that uses expressive choreography and Negro spirituals to examine slavery, abolition and its legacy in the U.S. (http://www.minnesotahistorycenter.org/events-programs/upcoming-events-programs)
  • Though there are African American History Month activities planned in schools, libraries and colleges throughout the state of Minnesota, the list of activities at University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus gives the flavor of the breadth of related resources and events. The kickoff at the U of M TC’s campus on February 3, 6:00 p.m. at Coffman Union, focuses on the theme “Young, Black, Educated, and Gifted.” The campus calendar features a Black History Month activity — drama, politics, art or literature — almost every day of the month. (http://campusclimate.umn.edu)
  • KFAI will celebrate February 17-18 with a full schedule of programming suggested and produced by local organizations, artists and thoughtful citizens. (http://www.kfai.org/bhm)

The list goes on….Suffice to say, this is but a taste of the creative, informative and inspirational programs that promise to engage the entire community in celebration of “a century of Black life, history, and culture.” And this list doesn’t even include the wealth of print resources accessible at independent bookstores and libraries everywhere.

The thing about black history is that the truth is so much more complex than anything you could make up. Henry Louis Gates